Thursday, September 6, 2012

From the Herb to the Bazaar - Chinatown Shopping

I love Chinatown for its colorful shops and bazaars, the festive decorations on Grant Street and the tranquil tea-houses, but to me the real heart of Chinatown is nestled in the network of Chinese herb shops.  Sprinkled like pepper in a spicy, Chinese dish, the herb shops are all over Chinatown. They can be spotted from the street usually by a red awning with white, Chinese lettering. Once found, you will see barrels of loose ginger by the door and smell its sweet yet exotic aroma. Shelves of teas, herbal remedies and more ginger are stacked along the walls and on baker’s racks.

My favorite shop is at the far end of Powell Street near Broadway. Like most of the Chinese apothecaries who work behind the counter, the quiet, assiduous man who owns my favorite herb shop is reserved. I walk in and am immediately awash in the smells of ginger, tea-leaves and other earthy scents that I can never identify. My eye is drawn to the large counter where the magic of the apothecary takes place. He is usually standing there sifting through and measuring tea-leaves, which he retrieves from a floor-to-ceiling vault of drawers behind the counter – placing the leafy mixture in neat, eclectic piles on squares of white wrapping-paper; the rather noble-looking man rarely looks up.

There is not a hint of salesmanship or even a glance of recognition when we walk in, and eye-contact is all but prohibited; however, it’s all as fascinating as entering a different world, to me. My boyfriend says that the Chinese believe a piece of their soul is robbed when their picture is taken. I sense they feel the same is true if they so much as look at us for more than a heartbeat. Of course, this isn’t the case with all the restaurants and other establishments in Chinatown; indeed, many of the owners or hosts will greet you as if you’d just had dinner with their whole family the night before.

Nonetheless, this particular apothecary and his demure wife have never bothered with shows of public relations, to my knowledge. They don’t need to, because they are expert, if not outgoing, about providing the needed remedy. Each selection of herbs is meant for a specific ailment from stomach trouble to insomnia, and every bundle is created with remarkable focus. When I have tried some of the remedies myself, I am required to go home and boil the leaves and twigs for twenty minutes, until they smell like something foreign and unpalatable, and then drink them as medicine, the tea of which always tastes incredibly bitter. Yet, the steaming elixir, more often than not, cures me.

One of these days I’ll get more than a few words out of my apothecary. I think I was very lucky to charm my way into being allowed to take pictures!

{The shop also carries Tiger Liniment, which is great for injuries or sore muscles.}

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